Reply to a Letter Intercepted

Karin Murray-Bergquist

Re: Keats’s 23-26 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats

Dear Mr Keats,

Forgive my intrusion on this Letter—but I could not help replying, from the room in which we are staying tonight, here in Ayr—for your travels are so like my own that I feel as though I’ve just overheard you in a crowded street or on the train. If there is any objection to my reading your correspondence, I can only reply that to Ayr is human. We have not wholly imitated you, having visited Orkney rather than Staffa, but as you did, we have followed local advice, whether in matter of which “Curiosities” to see, or merely where to eat.

After the Oat-Cakes of Notoriety, to have “made a good Supper” with a bit of white bread must have been a relief—it makes such a difference in travel. Our own tendency was to arrive in a town ten minutes or so before the pubs stopped serving food, which gave the trip some dramatic tension. I, too, cannot live on oat-cakes, and once or twice, my sister swears she caught me doing as you once did: “lean rather languishingly on a rock, and long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfrey in passing, approach me, with—her saddle-bags, and give me—a dozen or two capital roastbeef Sandwiches.” To come “sax Miles to Breakfast,” however, was never our lot.

Indeed, our accommodations seem twice as luxurious, when compared with your smoky lodgings on Staffa. But there is one advantage you have over us—your musical guide, with songs about drowned husbands and Charles Stuart. He sounds a most agreeable and eminently helpful man. Although we travelled with a violin, and played it from time to time, it was rare that we heard people singing such songs as you describe. But we were not wholly without musical encounters—we had CDs given to us by a fellow conferencer and a cab driver—traditional and modern fare alike, primarily fiddle rather than bagpipe solos.

The islands you describe are familiar; at least we encountered one such on the western coast—a great round lump lifted out of the sea and hovering on the horizon like a phantasmagoria—we were not sure for some time whether when we turned away from it, it would not disappear. There was a sort of blue glow about the edge, which seemed distinctly mirage-like, but whatever enchantment was holding it there, it held fast and so the island stayed.

The “great round lump” of an island seen hovering on the horizon. Watercolor by the author.

Perhaps if we had gone out to the island, we might have seen as you did on Staffa, basalt columns forming a cave of volcanic magnificence, as though “the Giants who rebelled against Jove had taken a whole Mass of black Columns and bound them together like bunches of matches.” I have seen caves such as this in Iceland and they too have become great tourist attractions—imagine my smile as I read your lines! Fingal’s Cave, inhabited by spirits and sightseers! Can it be you are tired of touring and tourists? You say that it can “only be represented by a first-rate drawing” and I hardly think mine fits the bill, but I have provided my best crack at it, though I never saw Fingal’s Cave except in photographs.

Fingal’s Cave–“This Cathedral of the Sea.” Watercolor by the author.

What has changed of Scotland since your time? The language I doubt you would quite recognise—that broad Scots is not often heard in touristic parts anymore nowadays—we had to decipher a little when we visited the Burns Cottage and Museum. He remains the chief champion of Scots, though not the only one, and remains as worshipped as ever, which I am sure would please you. His cottage, by the way, is no longer inhabited by anyone who knew Burns—drunken or otherwise—and although it still sees visitors aplenty, many of them are as illiterate in Scots as we are ourselves, for the museum provides translations of the most challenging words. But despite some strong accents, by and large it was a far cry from travelling in a foreign language, for English is everywhere. The poetry really must be read aloud—we read “Tam O’Shanter” as we drove along, the gorse blooming around, on a sunny day—an incongruous accompaniment, but a good taste of pronouncing Scots. You would be surprised to know that I read your sonnet to Burns aloud at the reconstructed cottage—you would perhaps be horrified that it was not so thoroughly forgotten as you intended. Perhaps I should apologise, but I ought first to point out something else that is new since your visit—the Trysting Tree. It is a metal tree, in the museum, where visitors write love-notes on the papers provided, then hang them on the twigs. I wrote something that could have been mistaken for a couplet, but it was so bad that I had not the heart to transcribe it, so I know full well how you feel.

Brown, perhaps, would find his genealogy work easier nowadays, what with societies to trace ancestry and allow one to find one’s nearest relations, as my sister intends to do on our arrival in northern England. Though perhaps you are better off without the potential embarrassing reunions that such research can involve—Brown’s encounter with the “parcel of people” at the cottage door seems a pleasanter alternative. He would also find his bespectacled state far less unusual, as among us academics at least, you hardly meet a soul without them.

Back to your recent rambles, however—and good thing you had fine weather—island-hopping is the best thing for history, a ferry ride is the best thing for a bit of salt air, and a walk about the ancient ruins, and a chat with local denizens, are best for a glimpse of a time when Icolmkill, or Iona, was “the most holy ground of the north,” a place where kings and chieftains were buried for centuries. The etymology of Icolmkill is a tricky thing, but you speak of the “I” meaning “island,” rather resembling the “ey” of Old Norse: a doubtful relation, though. When you return to Inverness, take a look at the river, where St Columba of the celebrated ruins was said to have banished a monster that has only grown in fame since. Lucky that on your journey you had the time to scribble poetry—and the inclination too. Whatever indolence you claim, that seems like enterprise to me. We took the time ourselves to write now and again, and even borrowed from you the notion of a poetry race, to sketch out our impressions of a place or two.

I fear I am only retracing your hand, over and over, in fact and in mind. There is a music in your letters. It is made sweeter by the knowledge that your account is for the benefit of your brother; I am travelling with one sister, writing to the other along the way, though (as you claim to be) I was “too indolent” to “put down every little circumstance,” an excuse that I am not sure she accepts. But I must close this letter to you, with the fondest wishes from another century and gratitude for so lively a companion. Mountains, castles, and lakes may become common, after enough time in close quarters with them, but it is still easier than having “time to be glum.” It is with a sense of adventure that you write, and I follow—but like you, I must study hard on my return—following this trip, I must go to write my exams.

Here is Jas insisting that we must go to dinner before the pubs close — and unless I wish to live on beer or oat-cakes, I must obey! O for a “seat and a Cup o’ tea at well Walk”

With the profoundest esteem and affection,

Karin Murray-Bergquist

PS—don’t worry about George. He’ll send a forwarding address eventually.

Karin Murray-Bergquist is a graduate of Dalhousie University and the University of Iceland, currently pursuing numerous writing projects whilst searching for PhD studies. She first discovered Keats as a child, through the book “Sleeping Dragons All Around,” though by the time she realised the title came from a poem, she had been introduced to him by other means. She recently presented at the 44th International Byron Conference in Ravenna, where she sent few letters but many postcards.

Letter #86: To Tom Keats, 23-26 July 1818

Today’s letter finds Keats and Brown heading to the Isle of Mull, Iona, Staffa, and eventually back again to Oban. We are treated to Keats’s extensive description of Fingal’s Cave, which he describes as such, and which we include at length, since it’s pretty fantastic:

it is entirely a hollowing out of Basalt Pillars. Suppose now the Giants who rebelled against Jove had taken a whole Mass of black Columns and bound them together like bunches of matches–and then with immense Axes had made a cavern in the body of these columns–of course the roof and floor must be composed of the broken ends of the Columns–such is Fingal’s Cave except that the Sea has done the work of excavations and is continually dashing there–so that we walk along the sides of the cave on the pillars which are left as if for convenient Stairs–the roof is arched somewhat gothic wise and the length of some of the entire side pillars is 50 feet–About the island you might seat an army of Men each on a pillar–The length of the Cave is 120 feet and from its extremity the view into the sea through the large Arch at the entrance–the colour of the colums is a sort of black with a lurking gloom of purple therin–For solemnity and grandeur it far surpasses the finest Cathedrall–

After the long prose description, we also find Keats venturing into a bit of verse. While Keats apologizes for it (“I am sorry I am so indolent as to write such stuff as this”), this particular KLP editor finds its rather intriguing. Like much of the poetry written during the tour, it’s an odd mix of Keats’s typical subject matter (poetry, fame, literary predecessors) with a comic tone that he seemed not to quite perfect. The premise, though, is actually quite funny: Lycidas, “Fam’d in funeral Minstrelsey” has appointed himself “Pontif Priest” of the place, where “Finny palmer’s great and small / Come to pay devotion due”–but now Lycidas has decided to depart because the place has been spoiled by all those dastardly tourists! Before diving into the water, he laments that “‘T is now free to stupid face / To cutters and to fashion boats / To cravats and to Petticoats.” Ok, we’ve now decided that the poem is actually a fantastic comic success.

Amidst his playful indolence, Keats also seems to feel ready to head home. Towards the end of the letter, he tells Tom, “I assure you I often long for a seat and a Cup o’ tea at well Walk–especially now that mountains, castles and Lakes are becoming common to me.” Just two more letters to come before Keats will choose to make his way back toward Well Walk. And stay tuned for a response from Karin Murray-Bergquist which parallels some of her recent travels in Scotland with Keats’s own reflections in this letter to Tom!

Images of the letter are below courtesy of Harvard. And for a print version we direct you once again to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 single-volume edition.

Page 1 of Keats’s 23, 26 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.35). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 23, 26 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.35). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 23, 26 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.35). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 23, 26 July 1818 letter to Tom Keats. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.35). Houghton Library, Harvard University.